Review: On the Exhale at the Traverse Theatre

UK locals might head into On the Exhale, Martin Zimmerman’s stark response to Sandy Hook massacre, feeling somewhat smug, unperturbed. Our gun restrictions are strict, after all, and we don’t worry about amateur snipers when we send our children to school in the morning.

Such an attitude would be ill-advised. Nobody’s off the hook in this exploration of grief, motherhood, revenge, power, and yes, guns. We might not be able to buy an assault rifle in three minutes armed with only a driving license (as our protagonist does), but the intense, unsettling second person narrative draws the entire audience in all the same, forcing us to consider what we would do in such a situation and challenging us to judge our protagonist as she seeks revenge.

The spectre of the gun haunts the stage in several forms. First, as paranoia, in the form of a young white male student with too much privilege and a gun in his belt; second, as pain, when our unnamed protagonist’s young son is shot at school; third, as power, when the protagonist buys the same assault rifle that shot her son, and finds literal and emotional release in pulling the trigger.

Polly Frame’s performance in this demanding one woman play is searing, relentless, intense, and yet relatable. Never for a moment are we allowed to relax in alienation. Picking her way through a striking set consisting of criss-crossing neon lights like trip wire, she draws all of the audience in as she questions and contradicts herself in a brutal and exhausting performance that is truly outstanding.

Since Zimmerman began writing On the Exhale in 2012, there have been over 130 school shootings in the US, the intro tells us. The message here, told with emotion and absolute clarity, is not subtle or worked into subtext. Frame’s character says it herself: no person can ‘be trusted to control herself around machines of such seductive power’.

On the Exhale, Traverse Theatre, 7-26 Aug (not 13, 20), times vary

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